Today marks the 150th Anniversary of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, perhaps one of the most famous compositions in the English language. For decades, it was a staple of classroom memorization, and its opening line still permeates our cultural consciousness (with occasional help from parodies and cartoon shows). But what is it about that speech that has such a lasting effect? Some of the same elements that have allowed Shakespeare to endure. This article by Jeanne Fahnestock does a nice job of analyzing the linguistic components of the Gettysburg Address. Something that particularly struck me was the discussion of word origins.
It is therefore not unusual in synonym-rich English to have multiple ways of saying something, one living on from Anglo-Saxon or Norse, another a French-tinctured option, and still another incorporated directly from a classical language. Consider the alternatives last/endure/persist or full/complete/consummate. Of course no English speaker would see these alternatives as fungible since, through years of usage, each has acquired a special sense and preferred context. But an artist in the English language like Lincoln understands the consequences in precision and nuance of movement from layer to layer. He chose the French-sourced endure at one one point in his Remarks and the Old English full at another.
Part of the genius of the composition of famous speeches lies in choosing the right word for the moment. Shakespeare is a master at this. The vocabulary of Shakespeare’s plays totals over 31,000 different words, and more than half of those only see use once or twice. While he can use and invent Latinate or French-origin words like “arbitrate”, “dissembling”, “burgonet”, or even “honorificabilitudinitatibus”, he can also write sentences as simple as “He is a dreamer; let us leave him” or “I am slain”. When we ask students to do word-for-word paraphrasing, as our actors do at the start of the rehearsal process, they often find that Shakespeare has already chosen the simplest word. Trying to “simplify” by paraphrasing turns something as simple as Orlando’s statement “Nothing: I am not taught to make any thing” into something distinctly more complex, such as “Absence; I am not educated to create presence.”
Word choice matters to rhetoric as well. As Fahnestock’s article points out, much of the power of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address comes from Lincoln’s method of structuring his sentences to achieve a desired effect — one that is emotionally moving, one that trains the listener to expect certain forms, and one that is aurally graceful and satisfying. The devices he uses — antithesis, polyptoton, tricolon — are some of the same as Shakespeare’s most-frequently-used forms. Repetition snags the ear, and Shakespeare and Lincoln, both men with an acute awareness for how to hold an audience, knew how to turn it to their advantage.
Interestingly, Lincoln connects to Shakespeare in one more way: textual variants. No one actually knows what were the 270-odd words spoken that day, as there are at least five different copies of the speech in Lincoln’s handwriting, and it is unclear which he read from — or if he may have made further extemporaneous adjustments. Further complicating the matter, newspapers in the days following the speech printed yet different variations, leaving no single authoritative text. That confusion of textual veracity is one that Shakespeare scholars also face, since even our quartos and folios are still several degrees removed from Shakespeare’s hand. Though Lincoln and Shakespeare both wrote some of the most famous sentences in the English language, the strange reality of textual culture is that we can’t now know that those were even their original words.